Conflict Is Beautiful

I failed at writing fiction for over a decade. Here’s how it would go:

I would get a vague idea. A jumping-off point. It could be a character. A situation. A setting. Armed with this – and only this – I would start typing and just see what happened. Characters would come on-stage. Characters would talk. Occasionally, someone would “do” something, but this was rare. And after thrashing through a couple of thousand words, I’d feel as though the scene had reached a natural close.

If I happened to read back the next day – though I tended not to – I would be predictably unimpressed with myself. Yes, there would be the occasional witty bit of dialogue. And I’d find that I turned a phrase nicely every now and then. And always the hint that in the next scene, something big was going to happen. But it didn’t fill me with joy.

I’d read through and be able to put red marks next to things that didn’t work, and I’d come up with all kinds of ideas for ways to improve the scene, and where the story could go next. But I wouldn’t do them. I’d put it aside, chalk it up to experience, and vow to try harder the next time.

Over time, my system – if you could call it that – evolved. Now, rather than trying to go from beginning to end as though I were training for the Olympic Gold in typing, I would pause every line or two. Looking at what I had written, I would ask myself “Is this good…?” without anything much to base my answer upon.

Two steps forward and one step back I would go, writing something that was in many ways an improvement over my type-a-thon approach. (And easier on the wrists.) It would read better. There would be less repetition, and fewer unnecessary words. It would sound more… “writerly.” And yet the truth I was forced to confront was that it was still shite.

Why? Because, not knowing what the problem was, I hadn’t fixed the problem. I’d gilded the lily, so to speak. Polished a turd. I believed that if I just grinded long enough on the words, chopping and changing and swapping and reiterating, that at some point it would all just… come together. Instead what I ended up with was a more impressive-sounding yet equally meaningless couple of thousand words.

So what was the problem? I HADN’T SAID ANYTHING. Which, when I say it now, seems blindingly obvious, as these things always do in retrospect.

I’d sit there worrying about exactly how the girl in the scene wore her hair. I’d make it a rainy day, then change my mind, then change back again. I’d fret over what shade of brown the sofa was, and the bar of chocolate, and the birth-mark on the back of her knee. Or whether she had a birth-mark at all.

Meanwhile, nothing happened. Lots of talk. Lots of description. Lots of hints of things that had happened in the past and may happen in the future. But no action. No conflict. No pressure. Just… words.

I was painfully slow to grasp this, but I eventually did. In the end, I suppose all it took was reading Robert McKee’s Story about fifteen times, Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid just as many (as well as his wonderful podcast with Tim Grahl), and taking obsessive notes on my favourite books and films and TV shows, for the penny to finally drop.

Here’s the painful lesson: Until there is conflict on the page, you don’t have a story. Until a character is in a situation where they are forced to make a decision under pressure – and you show both their decision and what happens as a result of it – you haven’t said anything yet.

It’s not about how many words you write each day. You can write an 80,000 manuscript and say nothing. Or you can do, as Ernest Hemingway allegedly did, and tell a whole, incredibly tragic story in 6 words.

“Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.”

To wrap up this little tale, the answer is no. I still haven’t managed to say very much in my fiction writing – you’ll be the first to know when I do. And yet I’m still very happy about all this. It turns out that when you get a handle on what’s wrong with your work, the path to fixing it becomes a hell of a lot clearer.

I guess what I’m saying is that when you feel you’re on the right track, you stop worrying about exactly where you are on the track. And as painful as it can be to feel like a dumbass, figuring out where you’re going wrong can be just the thing to help you figure out where to go right.

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